You have probably noticed the new link in the right column for The Book Depository, one of my favorite book sellers. Why? Because they ship worldwide for FREE! And they have excellent prices.
- Book only available in the UK (like Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book of short stories will be next week)? Order it from The Book Depository.
- Better edition of the book, better cover, better series (like the Penguin Modern Classics series)? Order it from The Book Depository.
- Booker Prize underway but books not yet published in the U.S. (or wherever you live)? Order from The Book Depository.
It has also happened that the book I want is cheaper to order from The Book Depository, despite the exchange rate (you can see exactly how much a book costs in dollars, so you don’t need any outside exchange site), thanks to their free shipping and discounted prices, than from anywhere in the U.S.
I do get a small commission if you use the link on this site to do your Book Depository shopping, and that would be great. I have avoided joining any other affiliate program because I don’t think any of them will make me much money. However, I believe in the value of getting to know The Book Depository and hope many of you do.
I’m not sure when I would have read Olive Kitteridge (2008; Pulitzer), if ever, had it not been awarded the Pulitzer Prize last Monday. For one thing, the book is not marketed to me. With its coloring (probably going for a warm, autumnal quality but which instead brought to mind a too-rich honey—and I’m still not sure why the pictures are cropped the way they are, as if the whole setting is overlaid with saccharine), its cursive title, and its lead quote from The Oprah Magazine when there are quotes from The New York Times and The New Yorker inside, I still was not quite sure I would get on with this book. Perhaps the marketing was genius and drew in far more money than, say, a Gilead-, Home-, or A Mercy-esque cover would have, but I’m convinced there are still many readers in a non-bookclubby audience who are hesitating before reading. Perhaps, like me, they think this looks like one of those books that in an effort to poeticize pain and loss ends up, rather, sentimentalizing them to the point of bathos.
Well, no one should hesitate any longer, at least not if what you inferred from the book’s cover was the hang-up. Olive Kitteridge is a sublime and subtle book, and Strout shows that she deserves to be placed alongside Robinson and Morrison (and I’m sure many other American women authors, whose books I’m excited to get to) in the top tiers of American women authors. By the way, I don’t think I use the word “sublime” too often (quick check done after this post was written: the only other time “sublime” is used on this blog is in a pulled quote from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; this is interesting in retrospect to what I wrote here).
Sometimes, when I have such low expectations for a book, I end up liking it primarily—if not solely—because it surprised me by being better than I’d anticipated. This can be done with little more than one fine sentence. Olive Kitteridge did surprise me—and it kept surprising me—but in only a couple of pages I was no longer surprised at how well the book was written and about how compelling were the subjects written about. It is one of the few books in recent memory that I wanted to keep reading when I finished.
Set up much like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (to be reviewed here soon) and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, this book is a series of vignettes involving the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine. However, unlike those two classic works, Olive Kitteridge is not centered on “community” as part of the theme. Rather, all of the stories revolve around Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher, the most scary teacher at the school. Through her and the community’s perspective on her, Strout examines life’s building disappointments that make it, at once, unbearable and unbearably painful to see pass so quickly (“The spring was gorgeous, and seemed an assault.”).
We get the sense that Olive has always been an abrasive woman, but over the years life has not met her expectations and she’s loaded down by an unconfronted guilt due to her own failure to meet others’ expectations. So, always sarcastic, she is frequently bitter, especially to those she loves. Her husband Henry—from whose point of view we get the first, pleasantly lonely story—was a pharmacist whose best time of day was when he left home to go to work:
The ritual was pleasing, as though the old store—with its shelves of toothpaste, vitamins, cosmetics, hair adornments, even sewing needles and greeting cards, as well as red rubber hot water bottles, enema pumps—was a person altogether steady and steadfast. And any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their home in the night’s dark hours—all this receded like a shoreline as he walked through the safety of his pharmacy.
This first story roams back and forth in time, giving us a foundational perspective on Olive and Henry, pre- and post-retirement. Strout has a master’s touch at craft, and the time shifts are seamless and as rhythmic as an ocean:
Autumn now, November, and so many years later that when Henry runs a comb through his hair on this Sunday morning, he has to pluck some strands of gray from the black plastic teathe before slipping the comb back into his pocket.
Strout is also masterful in her portrayal of psychology. I was particularly impressed and drawn in by the quiet way Strout conveys the psychological brutality emanating from (mostly, but not always) the women characters—to their husbands, to their children, to the other brutal women. This feminine brutality is perhaps surprising to those who think that a woman author always defends—or should always defend—her own sex. It is offset somewhat by some psychologically brutal males. However, even while showing this brutality, Strout succeeds in helping us empathize with the characters. We might not accept their actions—we might even despise them sometimes—but we usually understand where they are coming from. Often it spawns from a great love or fear of losing love or fear of loving again. As adept as she is in conveying this brutality, Strout is just as adept at using minute details, written in a reverent (beautiful) rhythm, at conveying loneliness:
And yet, standing behind her son, waiting for the traffic light to change, she remembered how in the midst of it all there had been times when she’d felt a loneliness so deep that once, not so many years ago, having a cavity filled, the dentist’s gentle turning of her chin with his soft fingers had felt to her like a tender kindness of almost excruciating depth, and she had swallowed with a groan of longing, tears springing to her eyes.
It is in these painful revelations that we come to love Olive, despite her flaws. She is not the only person suffering from pain revealed in quiet subtleties. Here are three quick examples (each from a different episode); look:
The fact that their newly baked scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad; a soft dismallness settled over her. The doctor had said to them, For three months you are not to even think of it.
But this turbulence in him was torture. He thought how yesterday morning in New York, as he’d walked to his car, he had for one moment not seen it. And there was that prick of fear, because he’d had it all planned and wrapped up, and where was the car? But there it was, right there, the old Subaru wagon, and then he knew what he’d felt had been hope. Hope was a cancer inside him. He didn’t want it; he did not want it.
He was the only person she’d ever told that her mother had taken money from men.
I was consistently in awe at Strout’s ability with language and style. There was not a single time in the 270 pages where her prose caused me to stumble, and as beautiful as it was it never stood out any more than what it was saying. It was always clear, painfully clear, showing the confusing beauty that is life.
I’ve recently put up a twitter spot for Mookse, though I know little about Twitter or about whether it will prove worth the small amount of time it takes to keep it going. I’ve twittered a bit about the books I’m getting and reading and reviewing, and I also try to pass on any interesting book news I hear.
Feel free to follow @mookse.
Also, please let me know of any excellent inside-the-book-industry twitterers.
I’ve been casting glances across the room at Muriel Spark for some time now. Thanks to Bookmooch (more on the joys of reading this book used later), however, I found a nice copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). It was first published in The New Yorker‘s October 16, 1961, issue, extending over 100 ad-plastered pages (I just found out that my subscription to The New Yorker gives full access to digital editions of all past issues—as if one doesn’t get enough for the $40).
When I picked up the book, I was a bit afraid I would be reading the inspiration for movies like Dead Poets Society or Mona Lisa Smile or any number of films and stories lauding an inspiring teacher. Perhaps Miss Brodie’s is a bit of an unconventional life, helping the students think outside of their roles. Happily (though I enjoyed Dead Poets Society), this was not the case.
Miss Brodie sees herself as the ideal teacher, approaching “education” from its original meaning: ”to lead out.” She teaches her all-girl students about art and history and broaches the subject of sex, though mostly by allusion. Miss Brodie is unconventional, but she isn’t necessarily a beacon of light for her drifting students, known in the school as “the Brodie set.” She has sparked their imaginations, but perhaps not in the way intended.
After Miss Brodie tells the girls about her lover, killed in World War I, a few of the girls imagine Miss Brodie’s love life, writing melodramatic stories and expostulate on their growing awareness of sex. Their naïve perspective on sex is pleasantly comic (“He must have committed sex with his wife.”). In the girls’ lives, Miss Brodie becomes a looming personality. The thrill of the novel is in watching the girls grow older trying to work their way under her disturbing shadow. All becomes more complex when the girls discover Miss Brodie’s love triangle with two of the other teachers.
Click for a larger image.
Though I found the book intriguing, I think I was distracted while reading it. I could sense the depth of psychological insight and I could capture some of the themes, but nothing came to life. I didn’t care about the characters, neither wishing them well or ill, though I enjoyed watching them interact in their terribly flawed lives. While the “why” was intriguing, neither the who nor what compelled me to keep reading.
This is not to say it wasn’t enjoyable. The details about the characters do make the characters come to life. As I mentioned above, some of Spark’s perceptive prose is very comical. Some of it is very sad. Here is an example of sadness. Early in the novel, we get a glimpse of one of the bullied girl’s grown-up life. Miss Brodie constantly picks on poor Mary, and things don’t get better for her.
On one occasion of real misery—when her first and last boy-friend, a corporal whom she had known for two weeks, deserted her by failing to turn up at an appointed place and failing to come near her again—she thought back to see if she had ever really been happy in her life . . . .
The narrative structure is another interesting aspect of the novella. Here, the narrator knows everything that has happened and that will happen to the characters. We get snippets of the future while we read about the past. For example, we know early on that one of the girls betrays Miss Brodie, causing her termination at the school. It does not take much longer before we find out which one did it. Much of the book is focused on why.
I promised to bring up Bookmooch, the online book swapping cite I joined a couple of months ago to get rid of some of my old books while acquiring some others. Generally, I’m not thrilled with the results. Books I read still look new (and I get a lot of snarky comments about that, from jealous people obviously). Most of the books I got came to me in pretty terrible shape. Some are unreadable, frankly. This book, however, brought some unexpected joy. A prior owner had annotated it for me, marking every time fascism was brought up and linking it (I’m not sure quite how) to Hitler’s army. Sure, fascism plays a role in the book, but this person skipped over most everything else and made some flying leaps of inference. It added a nice bit of color to my time with Miss Brodie.
I’m fully aware that my misgivings with the novel can be summed up in one phrase: it’s just me. Thankfully, my wife, who is much more perceptive to female psychology than I, has also read the book—and she liked it, may have even started re-reading it. Hopefully she’ll make some comments spelling out some of the other intriguing aspects of the book and pointing out how many ways I missed the boat. I’m already shifting my attention to Memento Mori.
After refreshing web pages constantly, and even once refreshing the Pulitzer website when it already said 2009 on it only to find that that page was no longer loading fast at all, I have the winner:
Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge. I have not read it yet, but here is a page I created when it was a finalist for the NBCC. Please stop by there to share your thoughts! (link broken because I have now read it and reviewed it here)
Finalists: The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich and All Souls by Christine Schutt.
Today’s post will be a bit different. In a prize drawing by Nonsuch Book, I won a copy of David Foster Wallace’s ”This Is Water,” (thanks, Frances!) published this month. I decided to put some of my thoughts on it and a short piece by Wallace recently published in The New Yorker (March 9, 2009, issue).
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide last fall I admit that I initially lost quite a bit of respect for him. Recently I’ve had to revise my views on his way of ending. The New Yorker published an article by D.T. Max about Wallace’s long struggle with depression, with his not-to-be finished book, with his medication, and with suicide. I highly recommend reading it. Max is able to reconcile, for those of us who needed it, Wallace’s suicide (at the age of 46; he hung himself in his garage where his wife found him) and Wallace’s struggle to live a compassionate life and to write compassionate literature.
I could then read with gusto and sympathy (rather than cynicism) his short speech “This Is Water,” which was delivered to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College.
Free copy courtesy of Nonsuch Book.
It is a very short speech, available online for anyone not looking to collect Wallace’s works in book form. However, in the short space Wallace is able to inject a lot of feeling along with his idiosyncratic style. I wish my commencement speech were as well told and, dare I say it, inspiring. I’m not sure Wallace wanted his speech to be “inspiring”; he seems to dislike the potential to lock up his thoughts in a sort of Graduation Speech genre. Frequently he says he is not trying to instill morals among the audience, just a way to look at life, a way that involves constantly being aware of one’s surroundings and choosing to act with compassion. Perhaps it sounds clichéd, but he knows that. What we get then is a new perspective on an old message. All in all, it is worth the ten minutes it takes to read.
Ten minutes? And yet Little, Brown has released it in book form and is charging $15 for something I can get online for free? The short answer: Yes. And I can’t defend purchasing it, except that you can then have a nice volume of a nice speech.
To stretch the speech to book length, Little, Brown chose to put a singular sentence on each page, in the end getting 137 pages. That means that some pages have an emphatic “That is real freedom.”
It’s the other pages, though, the ones filled with sentences in true Wallace flare:
It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store is hideously flourescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out.
You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle, and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long.
Which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpass the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college . . . but anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and you get told to ‘Have a nice day’ in a voice that is the absolute voice of death.
And then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the croweded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, et cetera, et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course—but it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week afer month after year.
Sounds very encouraging, no? In his great form, Wallace, in a commencement speech, is able to keep his writing fresh, bringing up a detail here and there, only to bring them up again later in a large, very meaningful, repetitious but fresh conglomeration of details. In the end it feels empowering.
Which brings me to the next part of this post. In the same issue as the Max article, The New Yorker published what, as far as I can tell, is a segment of Wallace’s unfinished book: The Pale King. The book is apparently an unfinished mamoth, and will probably be published in its state much like 2666 was. However, like 2666 what is written is wondrous, at least in its individual units.
“Wiggle Room” (also available free online) is a four-page segment about Lane Dean, Jr., one of the workers “whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpass the imagination”: he is one of the unfortunate souls who checks tax returns for the IRS.
This was boredom beyond boredom he’d ever felt. This made the routing desk at UPS look like a day at Six Flags.
Lane imagines a beach and flexes his buttocks in order to provide a slight diversion. The beach slowly changes, though, becoming less like paradise and more like a cold gray death. He challenges himself to not look at the clock, to do three tax returns before looking at the clock again. Time goes slowly, and we fill it, though we are wipping through the prose. Lane also keeps a picture of his young family on his desk, an attempt to keep him sane and keep away desperate thoughts:
Never before in his life up to now had he once thought of suicide. He was doing a return at the same time he fought with his mind, with the sin and affront of even the passing thought.
As always, the details are superb. Wallace can describe a boring job in a way that is anything but boring, placing in details that seem disparate but that actually go along nicely: “Everyone’s face was the color of wet led in the flourescent light. You could make a semiprivate cubicle out of the screens, like the team leader had.”
And, also as always, the story takes an unexpected but wonderful turn. Another worker puts his “ham” on Lane’s desk and begins to talk about the Word. “Bore.”
Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. . . . In fact, the first three appearances of “bore” in English conjoin with the adjective “French”—that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes?
We go in depth, but it is a great trip, I assume even if you don’t like to learn about words and their origins (I do). Though a segment of a greater work, the story comes together, or at least, it ends. I didn’t want it too. Which means, I’m looking forward to seeing The Pale King in whatever form it comes.
I have been very intimidated to start any book by Saul Bellow. For one thing, I feel almost obligated to like him yet ill-equipped to do so. I know that he’s highly erudite. And I don’t know Chicago like I know New Jersey and New York, so that personal connection is gone. So it is with a great sense of pride that I write this post because I got over my fear. Thanks to this little lead-up-to-the-Pulitzer project I’ve been doing this month, I took a deep breath and dove head first into Humboldt’s Gift (1975; Pulitzer). This might be slightly ironic considering this paragraph found early in the novel:
When reports were brought of the damaging remarks he made I often found that I agreed with him. “They gave Citrine a Pulitzer prize for his book on Wilson and Tumulty. The Pulitzer is for the birds – for the pullets. It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates. You become a walking Pulitzer ad, so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are ‘Pulitzer prizewinners passes.’”
Sidestepping briefly: this is one worth buying for the brilliant cover alone.
In his introduction to this edition of the novel, Jeffrey Eugenides encouragingly remarks that this book was not well received by critics at first (though it was a huge commercial success for Bellow, and didn’t take long to get some critical praise since it won the Pulitzer). Further making me wonder what I’m about to get into, he calls Humboldt’s Gift Bellow’s detour de force. When Eugenides calls this book a detourhe is referring to the fact that this large comical work came after several more serious novels, particularly Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which deals with the Holocaust. For some critics, this seemed like a major regression. Besides that, though, I’m sure Eugenides is also referring to the book’s narrative path, which winds around and around everything it almost touches. Apparently Bellow originally intended it to be a short story about the relationship between a writer and his protégé, and I got the impression that Bellow wrote the short story and then just added added added material around it, going around and about the main narrative, never quite settling down before moving again off into a different direction.
Largely, this is a book about a now-dead writer, Von Humboldt Fleischer, and his younger friend and protégé, Charlie Citrine. They started their relationship well (and with similarities to Roth’s The Ghost Writer: “Having written Humboldt a long fan letter, I was invited to Greenwich Village to discuss literature and ideas.”). Together they discussed art and philosophy, and Humboldt (like Bellow) managed to fit in hundreds of cultural/philosophical/historical/lyrical footnotes into any discussion. Later, though, when Charlie started experiencing success, mainly in the form of a Broadway play called Von Trenck, Humboldt accuses him of selling out and of stealing his personality for Von Trenck. They had a falling out, and it seemed that in his senescence Humboldt lost himself to madness. Now, a while later, Charlie’s life is going downhill fast. He’s mired in a lengthy divorce proceeding that is taking him for all he’s worth. He’s also going broke by squandering his money on a younger woman who really only wants his money. And, though unwilling, he’s getting more and more involved with a lapsed gangster, Rinaldo Cantabile. As things get worse, he comes upon a gift left to him by Humboldt.
That’s a fair rundown of the book’s foundation, but I can’t begin to explain the circuitous pathway Bellow takes to lead us through the book’s plot. It is largely driven by a philosophy. In fact, for many of the pages, Charlie is lying on his couch thinking about the past and infusing the memories with a kind of philosophy about the soul. At times (many, actually) I was annoyed by this. The book began to feel more a philosophical tract than a novel. And the philosophy seemed rather droll and unoriginal to me (I’m sure it’s my own ignorance that prevented my appreciation, however). One reason this book wasn’t well received was because of Bellow’s apparent infatuation with and preaching of anthroposophy, a philosophy whose nuances I have not tried to understand, but that has something to do with gaining insight into the human condition by accessing an objective spiritual world. Access to this world is gained by inner cultivation. Events and movements over the last three hundred years have stifled this inner cultivation.
There came a time (Early Modern) when, apparently, life lost the ability to arrange itself. It had to be rearranged. Intellectuals took this as their job. From, say, Machiavelli’s time to our own this arranging has been the one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project.
This rearranging by intellectuals leads to the commodification in modern America, leading to the degredation of the individual and his or her inability to access the spiritual world, thereby living blindly in this modern world. I wonder what Bellow would think today. It hasn’t been a decade since he died, but the world is a very different place. Some of his passages felt very relevant (as I’m sure they were when he wrote).
The world, identified by a series of dates (1789–1914–1917–1939) and by key words (Revolution, Technology, Science, and so forth), was another cause of busyness. You owed your duty to these dates and words. The whole thing was so momentous, overmastering, tragic, that in the end what I really wanted was to lie down and go to sleep. I have always had an exceptional gift for passing out. I look at snapshots taken in some of the most evil hours of mankind and I see that I have lots of hair and am appealingly youthful. I am wearing an ill-fitting double-breasted suit of the Thirties or Forties, smoking a pipe, standing under a tree, holding hands with a plump and pretty bimbo—and I am asleep on my feet, out cold. I have snoozed through many a crisis (while millions died).
I’m glad to say that after hearing so much about Bellow’s writing, I am a fan. Many of his sentences are beautiful, stand-alone poems: “Some women wept as softly as a watering can in the garden.” And he has a great ability to evoke a sense of place and of discomfort. Here is a segment where Charlie remembers nights in Chicago without an air conditioner.
I kept Denise from installing it. The temperature was in the nineties, and on hot nights Chicagoans feel the city body and soul. The stockyards are gone, Chicago is no longer a slaughter-city, but the old smells revive in the night heat. Miles of railroad siding along the streets once were filled with red cattle cars, the animals waiting to enter the yards lowing and reeking. The old stink still haunts the place.
And much of his meanderings reminded me about what I like about Philip Roth: the prose is generally tight yet playful; a sentence can seem to be going in one direction but then turn around on itself to end in an unexpected coda that subverts what was said before; a topic can be dealt with from a comedic perspective, making me laugh out loud, and then shift into dead seriousness with profound insight. The following is an example of that last quality. Here Charlie has just come out of his house to find his Mercedes has been beaten by a bat.
The attack on this car was hard on me also in a sociological sense, for I always said that I knew Chicago and I was convinced that hoodlums, too, respected lovely automobiles. Recently a car was sunk in the Washington Park lagoon and a man was found in the trunk who had tried to batter his way out with tire-tools. Evidently he was the victim of robbers who decided to drown him—get rid of the witness. But I recall thinking that his car was only a Chevrolet. . . .
So on this morning I was wiped out as an urban psychologist. I recognized that it hadn’t been psychology but only swagger, or perhaps protective magic. I knew that what you needed in a big American city was a deep no-affect belt, a critical mass of indifference. Theories also were very useful in the building of such a protective mass. The idea, anyway, was to ward off trouble. But now the moronic inferno had caught up with me.
I found the book flawed, however, in its excess. Though the detours often brings new and welcome vistas, sometimes they add nothing to the journey but time. It’s obvious Bellow was deliberate in this. Late in the book, Charlie begins a section of the narrative by saying he was going to visit a woman. But first, he says, he’d like to talk about another subject. It takes us five pages to get back to the visit he introduced in his first sentence and hasn’t brought up since, and I didn’t feel I got anything from the interim. It felt like it was set up to be nothing more than a detour. This does say something about Charlie’s mind, and someone more interested in the intricacies of his character might find this profound. I found it annoying due to overuse. Fortunately, Bellow’s prose is so amusing that, for the most part, I was willing to follow him as he wandered around the block; however, in the end I suffocated under the book’s weight. Five hundred small-type pages with nothing but an extra hard return to separate sections made this book my longest read of the year, and often I felt I was trudging through the deep mud of Bellow’s philosophy to get to Bellow’s narrative. It was enough to make me anxious to read Bellow’s (three!) National Book Award winning books (The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet), but not enough to make me want to indulge in all things Bellow.
I still remember the first time I read “A Temporary Matter,” Lahiri’s opening story in her phenomenal short story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999; PEN/Hemingway; Pulitzer). I was in a creative writing class (don’t expect anything from me, though) and the professor gave it to us as a treat. When I finished I was devestated. It tapped into so many emotions hidden even from me. I paid no attention to technical merit of the piece. I just read and then kept silent for the rest of the day. It remains one of my favorite stories; more than that, it remains one of my favorite experiences with a work of literature. I remembered the story for years and finally got a hold of the whole collection. I haven’t read Lahiri’s newest collection of short stories, but from what I’ve heard and from my own experience with Lahiri, it is surely a contender for this year’s Pulitzer.
The book is composed of nine short stories:
- A Temporary Matter
- When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
- Interpreter of Maladies
- A Real Durwan
- Mrs. Sen’s
- This Blessed House
- The Treatment of Bibi Haldar
- The Third and Final Continent
Several deal with first- or second-generation Indian immigrants to the United States. Not having any first-hand experience of the kind, I’ve found the experience of a couple of my friends insightful. One of my friends is a third-generation Indian-American, and, while he is not ashamed of his heritage by any means, he would not like that I just referred to him as an Indian-American. “When can I be just American?” he would ask. “You are not British-American or Scottish-American.” His hyphenated identity troubles him. I have another friend, however, who would be ashamed to drop the hyphen and refer to himself as ”merely” American. The first feels his identity is reduced when he is hyphenated; the second feels his identity is reduced when he is not. I am baffled by the wealth of experience outside of my grasp.
Lahiri’s stories, however, let me feel some of these experiences. She creates compelling dramas between characters we come to know (it seems) intimately. We come to pity poor Mr. Pirzada who, during the war between Pakistan and India in the early 1970s, left his family in Daka, under Pakistani rule. Lilia, the narrator, remembers the time when she was young and he would come over to her house to dine and watch the news about the wars going on in his homeland. To Lilia, Mr. Pirzada was wonderful; she loved his treats and prayed every night for his family. However, she remembers his strangeness. He was not of the same religion. She did not know Asia. To him, however, the visits were “a piece of home.” Lilia recognizes a cultural barrier but is more baffled by an even larger gap:
No one at school talked about the war followed so faithfully in my living room. We continued to study the American Revolution, and learn about the injustices of taxation without representation, and memorized passages from the Declaration of Independence.
The gaps notwithstanding, in this story Lahiri invites us (and gives herself license) to continue.
Not all of the stories are about immigration per se. Some take place on the Indian subcontinent, but still manage to show the plight of a people torn from theirs. In “A Real Durwan,” a sweeper of a stairwell laments her losses:
In fact, the only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut. It was with this voice that she enumerated, twice a day as she swept the stairwell, the details of her plight and losses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after Partition. At that time, she maintained, the turmoil had separated her from a husband, four daughters, a two-story brick house, a rosewood almari, and a number of coffer boxes whose skeleton keys she still wore, along with her life savings, tied to the free end of her sari.
Lahiri also raises interesting insights about women in particular: mapping (or partitioning) in “Sexy,” for example, ties into her theme of the Indian-American but shows ties to a woman’s experience with the body.
All of this brings me to an important point: I hope by pointing out some of the great insights in this book that I’m not making it seem simple, like it can be reduced to a few talking points. On the contrary, the stories are rich and deep, personal even when explaining things that I could never experience. All stories have elements that touch on personal emotions. Bringing me to the first: “A Temporary Matter.”
This is a story where it seems the Indian origin of the main characters is incidental. They could be any young couple working through a very difficult time in their marriage. Shoba and Shukumar receive a notice of a temporary matter: “for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight p.m.” Lately the couple have been going their separate ways, working late into the night in separate rooms, the husband in the unborn and not-to-be-born child’s room, knowing she will not disturb him there. The nightly power outage forces the couple to confront each other again. Though third-person, the narrative focuses on the husband’s perceptions as he navigates his way back into the intimacies of this failing relationship.
Just writing about it brings a lot of it back to me. And that’s the power of this book: it sticks with you, becomes a part of you and the way you see the world. What more can one want?
I first read this book about a decade ago, and I didn’t like it much. I thought it was boring. Well, if nothing else, let this post be about second chances and about how our situation in life may well be the real reason we fail to appreciate a book. I decided a few nights ago to reread it to review it in anticipation of this year’s Pulitzer (Millhauser has a book of short stories that was selected by The New York Times as one of 2008′s five best books of fiction, so he is a contender this year too). When I started it this time I was thinking, let’s just give it a few pages. I was immediately drawn into the world of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1996; Pulitzer). I’m sure one of the reasons I appreciate it more is that I’m a much better reader now than I was then. I feel more of the subtlety. Also, my experience with people and with settings has increased my ability to connect with the book. The first time I read it all of the details bringing New York City of 1880 to life failed to grab me; this time, now that I roam those same streets, it was striking!
Millhauser’s evocation of old New York was, well, as I said, striking. The past seemed so real it is haunting; or, rather, I felt as if I were there haunting the past. Here is an early description that was one of the main reasons I kept reading past the first few pages:
Martin’s mother almost never allowed him to cross Broadway, where great red or yellow omnibuses pulled by teams of two horses came clattering by; once she had seen a man hit by the wheel of an omnibus, and another time she had seen a horse lying in the middle of the street. She herself shopped at the less expensive stores on Sixth Avenue, where high in the air the Elevated tracks stretched away like a long roof with holes in it for the sun to come through. But the line of stores and hotels on their side of Broadway between the two big shady squares, Union and Madison, was almost as familiar to Martin as his own street. At Madison Square Park his mother liked to sit on a wooden bench under the trees and look up at the big seven-story hotels, before heading back to their rooms over the cigar store . . . .
I’d love to know if this passage is intriguing to people who have never been to New York City. Imagining that place bustling, under elevated tracks, 120 years ago and linking that to the bustle that is New York today really filled me with curiosity about the city. In a way, this book is a preface to the twentieth century. Here we see the transition from small to large to gigantic. Buildings that couldn’t rise above ten stories can suddenly go up twice—no—three times as high. Fantastic engineering feats, like the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, inspire others to think big and execute their plans, all of this before severe zoning and environmental and safety restrictions. This is the life of Martin Dressler, who started out helping in his father’s cigar store, a modest, conservative establishment. Martin’s first big dream is to create an interesting window display. Millhauser dives deeply into the soul of this dreamer, however, and we watch as his imagination, never satisfied, forces him to attempt larger and larger feats. From the cigar store, Martin finds his way into a job at a nearby hotel. There he works his way up, building capital, until he can open his own cigar booth (which sells cigarettes, something his father would never do) in the hotel lobby. He continues his jobs in the hotel too, absorbing the atmosphere, learning the system, allowing his imagination to run unrestrained.
No, what seized his innermost attention, what held him there day after day in noon revery, was the sense of a great, elaborate structure, a system of order, a well-planned machine that drew all these people to itself and carried them up and down in iron cages and arranged them in private rooms.
Soon his successful enterprise takes him higher and higher until he attempts to build a structure that houses the universe itself.
You are justified to think that as Martin’s dreams grow larger, the book itself would have a hard time sustaining this. However, the more complex and large Martin’s ideas get, the more complex the book’s structure gets—the better the book gets. Indeed, the book’s structure is a representation of what it describes. Millhauser anchors the fever-dream imaginings (all told with exceptional, exotic and attractive detail, like a sophisticated advertisement—another layer in this book) with intricate relationships, and he has the ability to navigate the complexities often felt but not understood. Through his excellent and ambitious craftsmanship, Millhauser infuses this structure with life rare in fiction. He can be lofty, taking on America itself, or he can be delicate and intimate, like when a young girl gives a young Martin “a small heart-shaped gold locket, still warm from being clutched in a fist.” This is adroit writing; by avoiding the obvious “her fist” and opting for “a fist,” Millhauser actually makes us focus on the moment and the action itself. The book is filled with moments like this. They are powerful and, though never expressly referred to again, haunt the pages just as the past does.
And as the structure and dreams get more complex, so do the relationships. Which brings me to another thing Millhauser does exceptionally well: trusting the reader. The book is complex yet controlled to the minute detail. And through it all Millhauser feels no need to spell everything out to us; he trusts us to follow him, picking up the details. This is particularly important when delving into the many relationships in the book. When Martin is moderately successful, he takes up boarding at a hotel where the Vernons—a mother and her two daughters, both around his age—are also residing. Strangely, yet believably and not distastefully, Martin feels as if he is married to all three women. On the periphery is the hotel maid, Marie Haskova:
His little Sunday morning friendship with Marie Haskova, with its air of faint ambiguity, as if her were concealing from the Vernons a secret mistress, in one sense simplified his relation to them, for whatever he felt for the three Vernon women had nothing to do with secret liaisons. The Vernons, all three of them in a kind of lump, could be imagined only as a wife. And yet in another sense Marie Haskova confused his feelings for them, for it was as if the vague desire aroused by the Vernon women were seeking an outlet in young Marie Haskova. But there were deeper confusions, elusive connections that he could barely sense. There was something unspoken between him and Marie Haskova, something secretive and unacknowledged—but weren’t the secretive and the unacknowledged the very sign of his union with Caroline Vernon?
Caroline Vernon is destined to become Martin’s ghostly wife. Martin’s true friendship will develop with the other daughter, who will become his business confidant. These relationships portray interesting aspects of marriage and the rise of women, still only slightly, up the ladder of equality. They also exemplify another aspect of modern life: the transition of some intimate events (like dinner) into large social events, where everyone gathers around in a large room inside a large building inside a large city.
Structure and identity are important aspects to Millhauser’s novel; indeed, they are as intriguing to me as his reportage of old New York. Playfully, Millhauser utilizes themes that seem connected to intriguing theory, particularly Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. While told very realistically, the book is filled with quasi-existence and mock authenticity. Sometimes Martin only knows how he feels by looking in a mirror. Many objects are reproductions or representations of something else. He hires “live actors [to] impersonat[e] wax works.” Objects are given meaning through advertising and placement. Life is given meaning through objects. And yet, it’s not so simple.
I picked up The Executioner’s Song (1979; Pulitzer) mainly because my wife is from the area in which its grizzly events took place: the area between Ogden and Spanish Fork, Utah. In fact, I read the book while in that area and was stunned when I came upon an address in the book (yes, the book is incredibly detailed), looked up from the sofa in the waiting room where I was reading, and found that I was at that exact address getting my car serviced! Creepy!
It’s always an interesting experience approaching Norman Mailer. Here is someone who considered himself the greatest American writer alive (when the New York Times asked prominent authors to name the best book by an American author published in the last twenty-five years, one reportedly asked, “Can I put my own down?” I don’t know if it was Mailer, but would it surprise anyone?). And he absolutely resented much of the literary establishment who failed to take him as seriously as, say, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and John Cheever. Though I harbor feelings of contempt for the man and think much of his work is self-preening, I can understand why he would boast; winning a few Pulitzers and a National Book Award can definitely go to your head.
This book is, to me, Mailer at his best and worst.
Here Mailer tackles a giant project: the first execution in the United States after the Supreme Court’s moratorium on executions was lifted. To do this he really (I mean really) digs deep into the life and times and Gary Gilmore, the one executed in the end. Mailer talks about big ideas, like execution and the media phenomenon surrounding the events, and yet maintains a personal connection to his characters by developing and examining a very disturbing relationship between Gilmore and his lover, Nicole Baker.
It’s a fascinating story, truly. However, at 1017 pages one gets the sense that Mailer feels like he’s gracing the subject and the reader any time he uses his pen to give us another detail. To me, that’s Mailer at his worst. I didn’t get the sense that he wrote this much because he was interested (though I’m sure he was) but because he wanted to show off just how much information and analysis he gathered.
Divided into two parts, the books is strangely balanced. Book one begins at an early memory of Gilmore:
Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared. The apple trees were their grandmother’s best crop and it was forbidden to climb in the orchard. She helped him drag away the tree limb and they hoped no one would notice. That was Brenda’s earliest recollection of Gary.
He we get a sense of the detail we’re going to encounter. We also see that the book is set up as a piece of reportage. Brenda is one of our main witnesses to Gilmore’s life. The book continues by breezing rather quickly through Gilmore’s early life, spent mostly in juvenile detention centers. Just how bad Gilmore was is kept ambiguous, giving him a mysterious aura; Mailer alludes that he may have killed someone while in prison, but maybe not. The book really begins to plumb the depths of Gilmore’s life when he is released from prison and goes to Utah to live. We track his jobs, his relations with family and friends, and particularly his relationship with Nicole Baker, whose own dysfunctional past is examined. Their relationship, just how these two very messed up individuals can violently come together, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this multifaceted novel.
This book tracks Gilmore up to and after his short-lived killing spree, when he killed two young fathers. We then go with him to prison, to his trial (annoying short on the analysis here, though), to his appeals, to his time on death row.
In the middle, though, the book shifts. Mailer, who seriously puts into question whether he wrote this book in good faith, digs into the media phenomenon surrounding the event. There’s big money in these types of stories. Which papers get to cover which events? What producer gets rights to Gilmore’s autobiography? What famous author (hmm….) gets access to the truckload of documents, interviews, and witness reports in order to write the authoritative version? And all for what end? —Money. Here is a man, who has killed too young college students, going to his death, the first state-sponsored execution in years, and the media is all in a hype about who might get to play him in a made-for-TV-movie! By the way, that would be Tommy Lee Jones, who won an Emmy for the role.
There are other fascinating aspects too. Another favorite was when Gilmore told his lawyers he didn’t want to appeal again; can an ethical lawyer not appeal a death sentence? For a time they did refuse to listen to their client.
It’s a massive look at a national phenomenon and at one of its strange stories. And Mailer does it all by presenting the characters in a quasi-fictional narrative (it did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, perhaps strangely). We hear them yelling at each other, brokering deals, guaranteeing Gilmore that the proceeds will go to Nicole.
And maybe that’s my frustration: here is an author I really don’t respect doing something phenomenal, forcing me to concede that he is a master. That he can turn all of this into a coherent narrative that someone like me who avoids overly long books can get lost in . . . it is praiseworthy, even if the author is not.